2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Related articles on Autos
Preview: 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
First Drive: 2008 Toyota Highlander
DBDR: 2008 Toyota Highlander
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Highlander
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Highlander
Test Drive: 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
Inside Story: 2009 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
First Drive: 2010 Toyota Highlander 4-cyl.
Test Drive: 2010 Toyota Highlander 4-cyl.
Buyer’s Guide: 2010 Toyota Highlander
Buyer’s Guide: 2009 Toyota Highlander
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Toyota Highlander

Manufacturer’s web site
Toyota Canada

Join Autos’s Facebook group
Follow Autos on Twitter

Review and photos by Grant Yoxon

Photo Gallery:
2011 Toyota Highlander

Gravenhurst, Ontario – For people who want the space offered by a midsize SUV, but not the fuel consumption that comes with most midsized SUVs, there are few alternatives to the Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

There are larger hybrid SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe or GMC Yukon, more expensive hybrids like the Lexus RX 450h, Cadillac Escalade and, more recently, the Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid and BMW ActiveHybrid X6, or smaller SUV hybrids such as the Ford Escape and the no-longer-available Saturn Vue.

But the Toyota Highlander has been and continues to be the only hybrid SUV with seating for seven, the fuel consumption of a compact car and a price that is not beyond the reach of most mid-size SUV buyers.

For 2011, the gasoline-electric Toyota Highlander Hybrid and its conventional gasoline-powered Toyota Highlander sibling receive a major mid-term facelift and improved standard and optional equipment. The Hybrid also receives a new 3.5-litre engine with improved power and efficiency, while the gas-powered Highlander gets a new six-speed automatic transmission.

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

I always felt that the hybrid, despite having the same horsepower but lower torque than the gasoline-powered version of the Highlander, was the quicker and more powerful of the two – simply a seat of the pants impression. With its new engine, the hybrid now has more horsepower – 280 net system horsepower, meaning gas engine and electric motor combined – up 10 hp from the 2010 model. Torque remains about the same at 210 lb-ft, down 2 from 2010. On our 77-kilometre drive from Gravenhurst to Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario, for the official Canadian unveiling of the 2011 Highlander, I still felt the same way, although we did not drive a gasoline-powered Highlander (270 hp/248 lb-ft) for comparison.

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

But buyers who opt for hybrid power over conventional power give up nothing, except about $5,000 in additional cost (Highlander V6 4WD vs. Highlander Hybrid, based on 2010 pricing). The Hybrid drives like any other SUV, is perfectly quiet at rest or slow speeds, and the transition from electric power to hybrid power is transparent. For the additional cost, hybrid owners also receive Toyota’s state-of-the-art stability control system, Vehicle Dynamics Stability Management, or VDSM for short, which makes losing control almost impossible. To get VDSM in any other vehicle you would have to step up to Lexus.

While pricing for 2011 models will be announced closer to their on sale date in November, don’t expect a big change from 2010.

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The Highlander Hybrid’s 3.5-litre engine uses an Atkinson cycle, as before, which reduces intake and exhaust energy losses. A new exhaust gas recirculation system also improves efficiency, while a cooled exhaust heat recovery system improves cold-weather performance. For 2011, the Highlander Hybrid’s Energuide rating improves marginally: 6.6 L/100 km in city driving and 7.3 L/100 km on the highway, an improvement of about 10 per cent from 2010. Yes, the hybrid gets better mileage in the city than on the highway.

While some people may feel that improved fuel economy is hardly worth the additional cost of a hybrid, one’s decision to purchase a hybrid should not be solely an economical choice. Certainly, there are many who feel that the Highlander Hybrid offers them an opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint while still meeting their needs for passenger and cargo carrying capacity.

The Highlander has a full-time four-wheel drive system in which the gasoline engine drives both the front and rear wheels and divides torque between the front and rear axles depending on driving conditions. In contrast, in the Highlander Hybrid, the gasoline engine and an electric motor drive the front wheels. If front-wheel slip is detected, a dedicated rear electric motor provides power to the rear wheels for additional traction.

2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid
2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Changes to all Highlander models for the 2011 model year include standard 50/50 split third-row seat for seven-passenger seating, standard rear-seat heating and ventilation controls, standard automatic headlight system, and Bluetooth capability on all but the four-cylinder base Highlander. A voice-activated navigation system is standard on Highlander Limited and Hybrid Limited, while XM satellite radio is standard on all but the four-cylinder base model.

On the outside, the Highlander receives new front fascia, grille, hood, fenders, headlights, rear bumper, rear combination tail lamps, rear spoiler and new aluminum alloy wheels. The Highlander Hybrid can be differentiated by its specific grille and front bumper treatment, and hybrid emblems.

Despite higher fuel prices, Canadians still prefer larger SUVs. The Highlander Hybrid makes this choice less painful. Until other manufacturers step up and offer consumers more fuel-efficient choices in larger SUVs, it would appear that Toyota’s dominance in the hybrid segment, as well as the hybrid price premium, will continue.

Connect with Autos.ca